CMA Fest in Nashville featured big country music stars, and this Northeastern co-op helped make it happen

Luke Bryan performing at the 2023 CMA fest
Luke Bryan performs during the 2023 CMA Fest at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP

In June, over 90,000 country music fans from across the globe gathered in Nashville for CMA Fest, a four-day festival from the Country Music Association that brings together the genre’s biggest stars. 

But what attendees saw during the event — like headliners Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert and Instagram-friendly photo backdrops — was only the final product after months of planning.

Part of the behind-the-scenes work for the 2023 CMA Fest was done by Olivia Guihan, a junior at Northeastern University who was a co-op for the Country Music Association and helped plan CMA Fest 2023. 

Over six months, she received a crash course in the things most don’t consider when they’re singing their hearts out at a festival. For example, when designing the layout of one of the green rooms, Guihan wanted to put lamps in the tent to brighten it up. The only problem? There are no outlets outdoors.

“There’s so many things I didn’t even realize went into planning (a festival),” Guihan says.

headshot of Olivia Guihan
Olivia Guihan. Courtesy Photo

Guihan’s musical roots go back to her upbringing in New York’s Westchester County, where she played piano for rock and jazz bands. When it came time for college, she decided to combine her tuneful tendencies with her interest in behind-the-scenes work.

“I wasn’t talented enough to be a musician, but I still wanted it to be a part of my life,” she says. “I also really like business, so I thought I would combine my two interests.” 

Guihan says she chose Northeastern University for its strong music program, opting for a bachelor’s degree in music with a concentration in the music industry. She was also drawn to the opportunity to get work in the industry through the co-op program.

“I feel like so much of the music industry is about experience, and no other school really gives you the opportunity to really dive in,” she says.

After working for the Empire State Music and Arts Festival in New York City and the Pleasantville Music Festival in Westchester County, Guihan knew she wanted to work in festivals. Her co-op coordinator, Nancy Tarr, suggested looking into the Country Music Association. While most festivals rely on volunteers, CMA uses interns, offering a rare chance to learn what goes into creating a large-scale music event. Even better, Guihan is a country music fan herself, making the opportunity ideal.

Guihan got the position in December and within three weeks was living in Nashville, helping book stages, design backdrops and craft budgets, on top of assisting with CMA award shows. One of her major responsibilities for the festival was setting up the green rooms where the artists would relax before performances; she designed the layout of the tent, sourced the products and set up the spaces on her own.

“I spent months researching, making PowerPoint layouts, reaching out to companies and budgeting everything,” she says. “They gave me a lot of responsibility. It took a lot of creativity as well as money management.”

Luckily, Guihan took a class on festival planning at Northeastern University where students studied the history and role of festivals in the music industry and what needs to be done to pull together a successful one. For their final, students put together their own festival plan, considering factors like ADA regulations and weather contingency plans.

“It was so cool to see what we were doing in class were legitimate things you have to consider,” she says. 

Guihan came away from the co-op with more than just the ability to say she helped plan the biggest CMA Fest to date. Her time in Music City offered insight into what more there is to explore in her field. Before leaving Northeastern, she wants to take classes in music publishing and branding in order to learn about things from the artists’ side, and then move back to Nashville to work in country music.

“I really enjoyed working festivals and live events,” she says. “But I also am interested in seeing how things are booked. I’m really interested in maybe being an agent. It definitely opened my mind to a lot of other possibilities that I didn’t know before.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @erin_kayata.